The Smartphone’s Effect on the Brain and Marcuse’s ‘Technological Rationality’

I reference a March 10, 2018 article in the Business Insider in this article.  It is titled “This is what your smartphone is doing to your brain–and it isn’t good”.  Ultimately, one must move away from the positivistic paradigm that is all but ubiquitous now, with its bias towards the quantifiable.  This will to obectivity is the real problem with the Western drive for knowledge, and statistics forms the basis for its raison d’etre.  Nevertheless I am going to cite a telling statistic from this article:  An alarming statistic.  One that should make one rouse oneself from one’s slumber and ask with urgency “What is happening to me?”  But the system itself, as it effects deeper and deeper inroads into the psyche, militates against such realizations.

What force in the human soul can be held responsible for this erosion of selfhood?  To address this question, I make recourse to the thesis of Siegfried Kracauer, as propounded in his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Study of Film (1947), which posits that a mythic figure in the run-up to National Socialism’s triumph in Germany, as embodied in a large cohort of the populace, reflected in the popular films of the day, the Somnambulist, a being without personal will, doing the bidding of a slavemaster, was the eminence grise behind Hitler’s rise to power.  Caligari, from the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the puppetmaster who decides who is sane and who is not but is himself insane, finds his patsy in the Somnambulist, who, under hypnosis, goes out to rid Caligari of his enemies by murdering them.  Kracauer borrows a page from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who believed that most people lead what he called an “inauthentic” existence, estranged from self and only going throught the motions of lived experience. Something deep in the soul predisposes the “average person” toward manipulation by outside forces, evidence of a split in the personality which denigrates the present moment and privileges the Beyond.  In this state of soul the individual gravitates unknowingly towards oblivion while at the same time believing he or she is a fully autonomous being.

Now I return to the statistic I referred to at the beginning of this essay:  86% of Americans with smartphones (which is almost everyone above 10 years old) say they check their phones “constantly.”  And for most it is not a pleasant experience.  According to the writer of the article, this cohort is seriously “stressed out”.

But this state of affairs didn’t just pop into being in 2007 with the introduction of the smartphone into American society.  Certain salient implications of our burgeoning technology were early recognized, 77 years ago, by Herbert Marcuse, whose notion of “technological rationality” appears as a doleful harbinger of our time and the time after our time.  Here is a quote from Jeffrey Ocay’s article “Technology, Technological Domination and the Great Refusal” on the phenomenon of technological rationality:

“For Marcuse, technological rationality refers primarily to the assigning of mental powers to the apparatus that calls for unconditional compliance and coordination.  In
other words, technological rationality means the subordination of thoughts to
the machine process so that it is no longer the individual that directs the
machine but the other way around.

“According to Marcuse, technological rationality arises when, in the
medium of technology, culture, politics, and the increasing power of the
economic system merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or
repulses all alternatives.  This eventually ‘extends to all spheres of private and
public existence,’ integrating all authentic opposition and absorbing all
alternatives.  In this way, technology, which is originally an external power
over nature, has been internalized by the individuals. Here, reason has lost its
meaning because the thoughts, feelings, and actions of men are shaped by the
technical requirements of the apparatus which demands compliance and
adjustment.  Thus, the human psyche is transformed into mere biological
impulses which make the individual a passive agent of production as well as
reduce the individual into mere spectator who adjusts to the technical
processes of production. Consequently, technological rationality dissolves
critical thinking and replaces it with the idea of compliant efficiency, which
results in the individual’s submission to the apparatus without any form of
mental and physical opposition.”

One grants at the outset that this technology does have undeniable benefits.  But it’s becoming increasingly clear that these benefits function as a shield, causing the mind sufficiently immersed to downplay what drawbacks there may be.  Marcuse shows that this progression towards the reduction of the mind to a mere mechanism, an appendage  of the technological apparatus, can’t be successfully addressed by recourse to such tepid techniques as advocated by, for example, the Center for Humane Technology.  It is a classic case of too little, too late.   Only by fully rejecting technological rationality’s hold on the psyche can the downward spiral towards personal dissolution be stopped.  The Zone (see Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design for an exhaustive discussion of the psychodynamics of The Zone) is a fearsome place.  The global “subordination of thoughts to the machine process” is too high a price to pay for this technology’s benefits!

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